Cuba – What Next?

After half a century as president of Cuba, Fidel Castro finally stepped down. What happens next? Rowan Lubbock analyses the history of Cuba and makes some sobering predictions.

Features - Posted on Wednesday, April 23, 2008 17:36 - 7 Comments

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After half a century as president of Cuba, Fidel Castro finally stepped down.


What happens next? Rowan Lubbock analyses the history of Cuba and makes some sobering predictions.

Fidel Castro 1959


The sheer flurry of recent speculation over the future prospects for a Cuba without Castro can seem almost overwhelming.

Much of the initial commentary in the West has consisted of exuberant victory calls, proclaiming a forthcoming of democracy and freedom. But it seems the Cuban people are rather less enthusiastic. Anthony DePalma of the New York Times (among others) has described ordinary Cubans as wary of “a savage capitalism” that seems poised to take away from them “the best houses, the best land, the best factories.” [1. Anthony DePalma, “A Future to Wince At”, New York Times, February 24, 2008″] Cuba’s recent history sheds light on these contradictory views.

“Ensconced in his Communist-run island”, the Economist observes, “Castro has weathered ten American presidents and their economic embargo against him”. For many in the Third World, Cuba’s defiance of imperial domination has earned a level of respect and solidarity that is almost unparalleled, largely because: “Cuban Communism always differed from that of Eastern Europe in being the product of a national revolution, not of foreign conquest.”[2. The Economist, “Castro’s Legacy”, February 21, 2008.]

Yet it would be a mistake to believe that Cuba has ever been an island truly unto itself.

Interventions
Under Teddy Roosevelt’s rubric of the “proper policing of the world”, Cuba became a de facto US protectorate, establishing a façade of independence following the withdrawal of US troops in 1902. The risks associated with granting this small Caribbean island its autonomy were sufficiently hedged through the drafting of the Platt Amendment, which was inserted directly into the Cuban constitution and the permanent treaty between the two countries. This constitutional caveat permitted the United States the right to intervene in Cuban affairs for the sake of “maintain[ing]… a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty”.[3. James R. Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt and World Order, (Washington: Potomac Books, Inc.) p.159.]

Roosevelt found an ideological ally in Tomas Estrada Palma, who was elected as Cuba’s first head of state in 1903. But trouble quickly brewed after Palma’s re-election in 1906, which received widespread accusations of fraud from both the Liberal party and the majority of Cuban peasants, workers and members of the armed forces. Acting out of fear that other imperial powers might intervene in Cuban affairs for the sake of protecting their own investments, the US invaded for a second time in 1906 by sending US warships and troops to pacify the “insurgents” and establish the “political stability” necessary for protecting American property.[4. ibid, p.164 – 5.]

Roosevelt, despite his stated preference for non-intervention, maintained that US intervention would swiftly occur if “the insurrectionary habit becomes confirmed in the Island”, citing the prerogative of US imperialism, “which has assumed the sponsorship before the civilised world for Cuba’s career as a nation.” This pattern in US-Cuban relations would remain a near constant until 1959, when a small band of guerrilla resistance fighters, lead by Fidel Castro, joined forces with the vast majority of Cubans, including important sections of the capitalist class and petty bourgeoisie, who had lost faith in Fulgencio Batista’s increasingly corrupt regime.[5. James Petras and Morris Morley, US Hegemony Under Siege: Class, Politics and Development in Latin America, (London, New York: Verso), p.111.]

During this tumultuous time the US was happy to see a smooth transition from Batista to a new, more popular government, provided it was capable of preserving the structural integrity of the Cuban state, which was central to the security of US investments. “In a crisis or period of political upheaval in the Third World,” point out James Petras and Morris Morley in their study, “the regime is expendable, the state is not”. But with the overthrow of Batista came the dismantling of the entire pre-revolutionary Cuban state. The infusion of a genuine revolutionary movement into the state structure of Cuba brought a decisive blow to US imperial designs.[6. See, Stephen J. Randall and Graeme S. Mount, The Caribbean Basin: An International History, (London, New York: Routledge), pp.118 – 9.]

Not surprisingly, the Eisenhower administration immediately sought to subvert the new state-regime. In 1960 the CIA orchestrated an invasion that was to be executed by anti-Castro Cuban nationals, which was vigorously taken up by the incoming Kennedy administration whose nadir saw the notorious Bay of Pigs invasion end in catastrophe, at least for Kennedy. With both overt and covert attacks yielding little result, Washington switched to a campaign of economic warfare that saw the Cuban economy almost completely cut off from the world market (apart from the Soviet Union). Writing in April 1960, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lester Mallory concluded that the only way to ensure the downfall of Castro was “through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship… [Using] every possible means… [the US should seek] to weaken the economic life of Cuba… to bring about hunger, desperation and [the eventual] overthrow of the government”.[7. Cited in, Louis A. Perez Jr., “Fear and Loathing of Fidel Castro: Sources of US Policy Toward Cuba, Journal of Latin American Studies, no. 34, 2008, p.242.]

Meanwhile on the island, the dream of bringing power and control back to the Cuban people was never entirely realised.

Democracy
While Castro’s Cuba has been romanticised by many on the left as a bastion of worker power, the historical structure of Cuban politics tells a different story. The debate and formation of policy at first stayed within a tight network of ‘declasses’ and sectors of the petty bourgeoisie, and not with those the new revolutionary regime depended on for support: workers and peasants.[8. See Chris Harman, “Cuba behind the myths”, International Socialism, Summer, 2006, p.84.] Despite this odd mix of revolutionary and capitalist interests inhabiting the same cabinet, Castro’s tight control of policy formation within his own revolutionary clique frustrated the more conservative elements in government, who eventually resigned one by one to find more lucrative pursuits in the United States. In the end, the most crucial decisions concerning social, political and economic affairs consistently flowed from the top down, without affording any political space in which the Cuban people might organise and implement their collective will.

After turning its back on US capitalism for the first time in Cuba’s history, the revolutionary government was eager to begin the process of rapid industrialisation, in the hope that Cuba could break itself from the shackles of cash-crop exportation. Ideological convergence (as well as the near absolute US blockade of world trade) made the Soviet Union a natural partner in Cuba’s economic development, giving Havana some room for manoeuvre in diversifying its industrial development.

Yet by 1963, Castro had already run up a balance of payments deficit with the Soviet Union of more than $300 million, mainly due to the government’s miscalculated central planning and a drastic fall in world sugar prices. In the face of such a crisis, Castro announced a return to the specialisation of sugar production, in clear conflict with the stated goals of the revolutionary movement to break Cuba’s dependence on single-commodity exportation.[9. William M. Leogrande and Julie M. Thomas, “Cuba’s Quest for Economic Independence”, Journal of Latin American Studies, no. 34, 2008, p.327]

In the end, Cuba could not escape the very nature of its standing within a capitalist world economy – it was simply too small, underdeveloped and tightly integrated into world markets to successfully pursue policies of rapid industrial development. Having struck a decisive blow against the old system of oppression, the Cuban people were consistently denied any chance of establishing a truly collective system of autonomous worker associations that would be capable of responding to popular needs. Free speech was curtailed. Criticism of the revolutionary government was, and is, punishable by imprisonment or worse.

This tragic narrative of strangulation and subversion from the outside, and the centralisation of political power from the inside, has marred Cuba ever since.

Prospects
But now that the torch has been passed from one Castro to another, what are the immediate prospects for Cuba today? Two issues immediately emerge. Firstly, Cuba will very quickly have to learn how to swim among the deadly currents of global neoliberalism. Secondly, as a concomitant effect of this ‘liberalisation’, the Cuban people will likely see the continual economic restructuring of their country confined to a tiny policymaking clique, made up of elements from the old guard and larger foreign capitalist interests, and possibly leading to a further degradation of the social fabric that began after the end of the Cold War.

During Cuba’s ‘special period’ in the early 1990s, the economy opened up to global financial flows and other market reforms, leading to a sharp rise in unemployment and a drop in nutritional consumption. Income inequality almost doubled from the mid 1980s to 1999.[10. Harman, “Cuba behind the myths”, p.102.] According to the Cuban sociologist Mayra Espina, three factors continue to aggravate these regressive developments: “growing income differentials; an increasing disparity between the regions; and a new social hierarchy based on material wealth, the symbol of success”.[11. Janette Habel, “Cuba: What will happen after Castro?”, Le Monde Diplomatique]

Despite this painful experience, the US State Department remains adamant that without further exposure to the global neoliberal framework, Cuba will have no chance of reducing its crippling level of hard currency debt, standing at roughly $11 billion. The report ‘Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba’ notes that addressing the debt “will allow Cuba to re-enter world capital markets… Should Cuba need debt relief from its Paris Club creditors, Cuba will likely first need an IMF program.” This will no doubt entail a near total marginalisation of the population for the sake of Western capital and financial speculators. As Anne Krueger, the First Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, has argued, an “efficient” model of sovereign debt restructuring should “draw… on the principles of well-designed corporate bankruptcy regimes”[12. Cited in, Larry Cata Backer, Cuba and the IMF: Conflicts over the Nature of the State and Sovereign Debt in the Emerging Global Economic System, p.10] Anyone familiar with the modus operandi of corporate restructuring will surely expect a rapid rise in unemployment, depressed wages and lower social spending within Cuban society, should the IMF be allowed to sink its teeth in.

In keeping with the Castro brothers’ preference for market reform over political reform, Cuba is unlikely to see any substantial movement towards a more participatory political system, notwithstanding the recent adoption of two human rights agreements with the UN.

As Time magazine explains, Washington should “establish [with Cuba] the kind of diplomatic relations [it] has with other iron-fisted regimes, like those in China and Saudi Arabia”, in the hope that it will be able “to exert some direct influence on the island’s economy and politics”. This widely shared sentiment among Western elites nullifies the predictably empty rhetoric espousing greater political freedom for ordinary Cubans. As the Wall Street Journal recently commented, “Raúl is expected to attempt to move the country toward a more competitive economic system, on the China model, something he has supported in the past.”[13. WSJ Europe, “49 years of Fidel”, February 20, 2008, p.A14] If China is intended as a model of social development, the Cuban people have good reason to be weary.

The ‘enlightened despotism’ of Cuba’s Cold War past is likely to soon give way to a new ‘enlightened polyarchy’, which seeks to support the imperatives of competitive accumulation. When Fidel Castro addressed the UN General Assembly in September 1960, he boldly proclaimed that, “imperialist financial capital is a prostitute that cannot seduce us”. Yet with the twin transitory features of an increasing openness to the world economy, and a lack of popular power, it would seem that the seduction of Cuba is a very real and dangerous possibility. The Cuban people need our sympathy and solidarity now more than ever.

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7 Comments

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Sara Foster
May 21, 2010 3:40

Fidel Castro would always be an icon of history evethough he is against the U.S.*;.

Lexie Wilkinson
Jul 19, 2010 9:04

Fidel Castro still have some good legacies despite his not so good repuation..`”

Metallic Sandals :
Oct 22, 2010 18:13

the us hates fidel castro but he has lots of achievements too in Cuba;’-

Mixer Shower
Dec 13, 2010 6:48

actually, Fidel Castro is not at all a bad man. Cuba has one of the best government medical care in the world ,`~

Corrina Kunkel
Aug 7, 2011 11:14

… … Cuba – What Next? – Ceasefire Magazine … …

Alexander
Sep 10, 2011 23:00

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Benedict
Sep 12, 2011 7:14

I would like to thank you for the efforts you get in writing this article. It has been an encouragement for me personally. I have transferred this onto a friend of mine. thankyou

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